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A CITY IS NOT A TREE

CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER
The tree of my title is not a green tree with leaves. It is the name of an abstract structure. I shall contrast it with another, more complex abstract structure called a semilattice. In order to relate these abstract structures to the nature of the city, I must first make a simple distinction. I want to call those cities which have arisen more or less spontaneously over many, many years natural cities. And I shall call those cities and parts of cities which have been deliberately created by designers and planners artificial cities. Siena, Liverpool, Kyoto, Manhattan are examples of natural cities. Levittown, Chandigarh and the British New Towns are examples of artificial cities. It is more and more widely recognized today that there is some essential ingredient missing from artificial cities. When compared with ancient cities that have acquired the patina of life, our modern attempts to create cities artificially are, from a human point of view, entirely unsuccessful. Both the tree and the semilattice are ways of thinking about how a large collection of many small systems goes to make up a large and complex system. More generally, they are both names for structures of sets. In order to define such structures, let me first define the concept of a set. A set is a collection of elements which for some reason we think of as belonging together. Since, as designers, we are concerned with the physical living city and its physical backbone, we must naturally restrict ourselves to considering sets which are collections of material elements such as people, blades of grass, cars, molecules, houses, gardens, water pipes, the water molecules in them etc. When the elements of a set belong together because they co-operate or work together somehow, we call the set of elements a system. For example, in Berkeley at the corner of Hearst and Euclid, there is a drugstore, and outside the drugstore a traffic light. In the entrance to the drugstore there is a newsrack where the day's papers are displayed. When the light is red, people who are waiting to cross the street stand idly by the light; and since they have nothing to do, they look at the

papers displayed on the newsrack which they can see from where they stand. Some of them just read the headlines, others actually buy a paper while they wait. This effect makes the newsrack and the traffic light interactive; the newsrack, the newspapers on it, the money going from people's pockets to the dime slot, the people who stop at the light and read papers, the traffic light, the electric impulses which make the lights change, and the sidewalk which the people stand on form a system - they all work together. From the designer's point of view, the physically unchanging part of this system is of special interest. The newsrack, the traffic light and the sidewalk between them, related as they are, form the fixed part of the system. It is the unchanging receptacle in which the changing parts of the system - people, newspapers, money and electrical impulses - can work together. I define this fixed part as a unit of the city. It derives its coherence as a unit both from the forces which hold its own elements together and from the dynamic coherence of the larger living system which includes it as a fixed invariant part. Of the many, many fixed concrete subsets of the city which are the receptacles for its systems and can therefore be thought of as significant physical units, we usually single out a few for special consideration. In fact, I claim that whatever picture of the city someone has is defined precisely by the subsets he sees as units. Now, a collection of subsets which goes to make up such a picture is not merely an amorphous collection. Automatically, merely because relationships are established among the subsets once the subsets are chosen, the collection has a definite structure. To understand this structure, let us think abstractly for a moment, using numbers as symbols. Instead of talking about the real sets of millions of real particles which occur in the city, let us consider a simpler structure made of just half a dozen elements. Label these elements 1,2,3,4,5,6. Not including the full set [1,2,3,4,5,6], the empty set [-], and the one-element sets [1],[2],[3],C4],[5], [6], there are 56 different subsets we can pick from six elements. Suppose we now pick out certain of these 56 sets (just as we pick out certain sets and call them units when we form our picture of the city). Let us say, for example, that we pick the following subsets: [123], [34], [45], [234], [345], [12345], [3456]. What are the possible relationships among these sets? Some sets will be entirely part of larger sets, as [34] is part of [345] and [3456]. Some of the sets will overlap, like [123] and [234]. Some of the sets will be disjoint - that is, contain no elements in common like [123] and [45].

it is usual to draw lines only between sets which have no further sets and lines between them. This is the structure which we are concerned with here. . sidewalk and traffic light. (As far as the city is concerned. the choice of subsets alone endows the collection of subsets as a whole with an overall structure. thus the line between [34] and [345] and the line between [345] and [3456] make it unnecessary to draw a line between [34] and [3456]. this axiom states merely that wherever two units overlap. there is a vertical path leading from one to the other. The two units overlap in the newsrack. the area of overlap is itself a recognizable entity and hence a unit also. [34]. so that whenever one set contains another (as [345] contains [34]. with its entry and the newsrack. When the structure meets certain conditions it is called a semilattice. Diagrams A & B redrawn by Nikos Salingaros As we see from these two representations. In diagram A each set chosen to be a unit has a line drawn round it. also belongs to it. the set of elements common to both also belongs to the collection. for instance. Another unit consists of the drugstore itself. For the sake of clarity and visual economy. one unit consists of newsrack.) The tree axiom states: A collection of sets forms a tree if and only if. Clearly this area of overlap is itself a recognizable unit and so satisfies the axiom above which defines the characteristics of a semilattice. [234] and [345] both belong to the collection and their common part. for any two sets that belong to the collection either one is wholly contained in the other. it is called a tree. It satisfies the axiom since. In the case of the drugstore example. When it meets other more restrictive conditions. The semilattice axiom goes like this: A collection of sets forms a semilattice if and only if. In diagram B the chosen sets are arranged in order of ascending magnitude. when two overlapping sets belong to the collection.We can see these relationships displayed in two ways. or else they are wholly disjoint. The structure illustrated in diagrams A and B is a semilattice.

so that every tree is a trivially simple semilattice. form 'villages'. each of which I shall show to be essentially a tree. Transportation joins the villages into a new town. Community Research and Development. We are concerned with the difference between structures in which no overlap occurs. Still more important is the fact that the semilattice is potentially a much more complex and subtle structure than a tree. there is no way in which the semilattice axiom can be violated. Inc. characteristic of trees. . To demonstrate.The structure illustrated in diagrams C and D is a tree. Columbia. Diagrams A & B redrawn by Nikos Salingaros However.in clusters of five. let us look at some modern conceptions of the city. It is not merely the overlap which makes the distinction between the two important.: Neighbourhoods. and those structures in which overlap does occur. This enormously greater variety is an index of the great structural complexity a semilattice can have when compared with the structural simplicity of a tree. while a semilattice based on the same 20 elements can contain more than 1. Figure 1. but with the difference between trees and those more general semilattices which are not trees because they do contain overlapping units. It is this lack of structural complexity. in this chapter we are not so much concerned with the fact that a tree happens to be a semilattice. which is crippling our conceptions of the city. The organization is a tree. We may see just how much more complex a semilattice can be than a tree in the following fact: a tree based on 20 elements can contain at most 19 further subsets of the 20. Since this axiom excludes the possibility of overlapping sets. Maryland.000 different subsets.000.

' The city is conceived as a tree with two principal levels. the university centre. generally with their own shops and schools. the smaller sub-units are neighbourhoods. Clarence Stein: This 'garden city' has been broken down into superblocks. and where necessary to recognize them as separate and definite entities. Tokyo plan. The organization is a tree. to believe that it is a richer structure than our more obviously rigid examples. each sharply separated from all adjacent communities. Abercrombie writes. There are four major loops. In the second major loop. The plan consists of a series of loops stretched across Tokyo Bay.Figure 2. to increase their degree of segregation. Mesa City. each medium loop contains three minor loops which are residential neighbourhoods. each again subdivided further and surrounded by groups of still smaller dwelling units. parks and a number of subsidiary groups of houses built around parking lots. Greenbelt. Figure 3. 'The proposal is to emphasize the identity of the existing communities. Greater London plan (1943). Here we find the centre of the city divided into a university and a residential quarter. The communities are the larger units of the structure. Kenzo Tange: This is a beautiful example. Take. Otherwise. . Abercrombie and Forshaw: The drawing depicts the structure conceived by Abercrombie for London. Paolo Soleri: The organic shapes of Mesa City lead us. There are no overlapping units. Maryland.' And again. Figure 4. particularly. 'The communities themselves consist of a series of sub-units. Figure 5. one medium loop is the railway station and another is the port. at a careless glance. which is itself divided into a number of villages (actually apartment towers) for 4000 inhabitants. The structure is a tree. It is made of a large number of communities. Each superblock contains schools. But when we look at it in detail we find precisely the same principle of organization. corresponding to the neighbourhood units. each of which contains three medium loops.

planetarium. plastic arts. Two subsidiary elongated commercial cores are strung out along the maior arterial roads. but of apartment blocks. the innermost being a commercial centre. and. and the fourth open country. Lucio Costa: The entire form pivots about the central axis. agriculture and vacation lands. music and drama. the open country is divided into three segments: forest preserves. Finally. Brasilia. containing five layers: airport. the third residential and medical. linked to the administrative centre at the head. each of these containing individual dwelling units.except in the third major loop where one contains government offices and another industrial offices. . Percival and Paul Goodman: Communitas is explicitly organized as a tree: it is first divided into four concentric major zones. community and commercial centres. The university is divided into eight sectors comprising natural history. these are fed by the roads which surround the superbiocks themselves. railroads. shopping and amusement. light manufacture. the next a university. The overall organization is a tree. Figure 8. running north-south. Finally. one for each of the city's 20 sectors. zoos and aquariums. Figure 7. at the bottom. The structure is a tree. This main artery is in turn fed by subsidiary arteries parallel to it. Figure 6. Chandigarh (1951). buses and mechanical services. administration. science laboratories. not consisting of individual houses. The third concentric ring is divided into neighbourhoods of 4000 people each. Communitas. Subsidiary to these are further administrative. and each of the two halves is served by a single main artery. Each of these is further subdivided: the commercial centre is represented as a great cylindrical skyscraper. Le Corbusier: The whole city is served by a commercial centre in the middle.

even the house on a long street (not in some little cluster) is a more accurate acknowledgement of the fact that your friends live not next door. There are virtually no closed groups of people in modern society. the units which do appear fail to correspond to any living reality.the systems of friends and acquaintances form a semilattice. even millions. He describes the fact that certain Roman towns had their origin as military camps. It appears in Hilberseimer's book The Nature of Cities. The symbol is apt. the organization of the army was designed precisely in order to create discipline and rigidity. A village is made up of a number of separate closed groups of this kind. is the fixed. unchanging residue of some system in the living city (just as a house is the residue of the interactions between the members of a family. and can only be reached by bus or car.The most beautiful example of all I have kept until last. have been provided with no physical receptacle.Figure 9. In a traditional society. and the way they function suggests a hierarchy of stronger and stronger closed social groups. their emotions and their belongings. but far away. in every city there are thousands. and then shows a picture of a modern military encampment as a kind of archetypal form for the city. It is not possible to have a structure which is a clearer tree. of times as many more systems at work whose physical residue does not appear as a unit in these tree structures. and a freeway is the residue of movement and commercial exchange). The reality of today's social structure is thick with overlap . moreover. for. they will all name different people. because it symbolizes the problem perfectly. these people would again name others. If we ask a man to name his friends and then ask them in turn to name their friends. if we ask a man to name his best friends and then ask each of these in turn to name their best friends. However. very likely unknown to the first person. But today's social structure is utterly different. Neither the Columbia plan nor the Stein plan for example. In this respect Manhattan has more overlap in it . The photograph on the [left] is Hilberseimer's own scheme for the commercial area of a city based on the army camp archetype. is a tree. ranging from the whole city down to the family. and the real systems. then. corresponds to social realities. The physical layout of the plans. not a tree (Figure 10). each formed by associational ties of different strength. and so on outwards. Each of these structures. In the natural city. Each unit in each tree that I have described. they will all name each other so that they form a closed group. of course. In the worst cases. whose existence actually makes the city live.

by comparison. And though one can argue that in Greenbelt. a city of 200. It must be emphasized. A major aspect of the city's social structure which a tree can never mirror properly is illustrated by Ruth Glass's redevelopment plan for Middlesbrough. England.000 which she recommends be broken down into 29 separate neighbourhoods. and shall better see its implications. So that we get a really clear understanding of what this means. youth clubs.than Greenbelt. and is therefore a unit in the terms of this discussion. let us define a tree once again. plus the people who use this centre. that the idea of overlap. Each of these centres draws its users from a certain spatial area or spatial unit. more subtle and more complex view of structure. This spatial unit is the physical residue of the social system as a whole. greengrocers and grocers selling sugar. why are just these the most irrelevant ones? Part II The units of which an artificial city is made up are always organized to form a tree. too. she asks herself the question: 'If we examine some of the social systems which actually exist for the people in such a neighbourhood. . of great paintings and symphonies. post offices. After picking her 29 neighbourhoods by determining where the sharpest discontinuities of building type. friends are only minutes away by car. Specifically she takes elementary schools. do the physical units defined by these various social systems all define the same spatial neighbourhood?' Her own answer to this question is no. It is a little as though the members of a family were not free to make friends outside the family. secondary schools. Let us now look at the ways in which the natural. The enormity of this restriction is difficult to grasp. shows itself to be a semilattice. lest the orderly mind shrink in horror from anything that is not clearly articulated and categorized in tree form. The semilattice. except when the family as a whole made a friendship. but more so. tougher. it is the structure of living things. The units corresponding to different kinds of centres for the single neighbourhood of Waterloo Road are shown in Figure 11. one must then ask: since certain groups have been emphasized by the physical units of the physical structure. Whenever we have a tree structure. it means that within this structure no piece of any unit is ever connected to other units. income and job type occur. multiplicity of aspect and the semilattice are not less orderly than the rigid tree. Each of the social systems she examines is a nodal system. They represent a thicker. ambiguity. In simplicity of structure the tree is comparable to the compulsive desire for neatness and order that insists the candlesticks on a mantelpiece be perfectly straight and perfectly symmetrical about the centre. is the structure of a complex fabric. It is made of some sort of central node. adult clubs. except through the medium of that unit as a whole. when unconstrained by artificial conceptions.

The white square is the post office. in terms of 29 large and conveniently integral Chunks called neighbourhoods. Only in the artificial-tree conception of the city are their natural. and Figure 13 shows how the redevelopment plan pretends they stick together. The white circle stands for the youth club. Yet neither are they disjoint. As you can see at once. Consider the separation of pedestrians from moving vehicles. Next to Figure 11 are two representations of the Waterloo neighbourhood. and the dotted line marks the unit which contains its users. For the sake of argument I have broken it into a number of small areas. The natural city of Middlesbrough was faithful to the semilattice structure of the units. The cruising taxi needs a fast stream of traffic so that it can cover a large area to be sure of finding a passenger. the different units do not coincide. When we describe the city in terms of neighbourhoods. Figure 12 shows how these pieces stick together in fact. it forms the system marked by the dot-dashed line. The pedestrian needs to be able to hail the taxi from any point in the pedestrian world. and the small solid rings stand for areas where its members live. Louis Kahn and many others. Therefore the units they define are different. Together with its pupils. we implicitly assume that the smaller elements within any one of these neighbourhoods belong together so tightly that they only interact with elements in other neighbourhoods through the medium of the neighbourhoods to which they themselves belong. We cannot get an adequate picture of what Middlesbrough is. The ringed spot is the adult club. At a very crude level of thought this is obviously a good idea. They overlap. Yet the urban taxi can function only because pedestrians and vehicles are not strictly separated.The hard outline is the boundary of the so-called neighbourhood itself. proper and necessary overlaps destroyed. and the homes of its members form the unit marked by dashed boundaries. Their natures are different. or of what it ought to be. There is nothing in the nature of the various centres which says that their catchment areas should be the same. a tree concept proposed by Le Corbusier. and to be able to get out to any part of the pedestrian world . The secondary school is marked by the spot with a white triangle in it. Ruth Glass herself shows clearly that this is not the case.

forms a system. and the necessary overlap is guaranteed (Figure 14). Chandigarh. the movies. the MARS plan for London and.to which he wants to go. One day it may be indoors. In some cases whole departments may be actively involved in the life of the city's inhabitants (the hospital-cummedical school is an example). children become full of their surroundings. . a natural city where university and city have grown together gradually. It has nothing to do with the life of play itself. Another·favourite concept of the CIAM theorists and others is the separation of recreation from everything else. in the Manhattan Lincoln Center. Let us look next at the hierarchy of urban cores realized in Brasilia. Again. This has crystallized in our real cities in the form of playgrounds. where various performing arts serving the population of greater New York have been gathered together to form just one core. In Cambridge. In Manhattan pedestrians and vehicles do share certain parts of the city. coffeedrinking. A similar kind of mistake occurs in trees like that of Goodman's Communitas or Soleri's Mesa City. cut off from the other systems of the city. must do the same. asphalted and fenced in. is nothing but a pictorial acknowledgment of the fact that 'play' exists as an isolated concept in our minds. There are always many systems of activity where university life and city life overlap: pub-crawling. another day down by the river. the play that children practise. the physical units overlap because they are the physical residues of city systems and university systems which overlap (Figure 15). It is not true that these systems exist in isolation. In a natural city this is what happens. Play itself. Few self-respecting children will even play in a playground. The system which contains the taxicabs needs to overlap both the fast vehicular traffic system and the system of pedestrian circulation. and the objects it requires. How can children become filled with their surroundings in a fenced enclosure! They cannot. another day in a friendly gas station. The different systems overlap one another. this has actually been realized in the common American form of the isolated campus. another day on a construction site which has been abandoned for the weekend. most recently. another day in a derelict building. The playground. The units. Each of these play activities. walking from place to place. and they overlap many other systems besides. goes on somewhere different every day. and everything outside is nonuniversity? It is conceptually clear. What is the reason for drawing a line in the city so that everything within the boundary is university. which separate the university from the rest of the city. As they play. the physical places recognized as play places. But does it correspond to the realities of university life? Certainly it is not the structure which occurs in nonartificial university cities. Play takes place in a thousand places it fills the interstices of adult life.

is now found in every artificial city and accepted everywhere where zoning is enforced. Is this a sound principle? It is easy to see how bad conditions at the beginning of the century prompted planners to try to get the dirty factories out of residential areas. in the political complexity of a modern city. little parts of both. and the idea of a single hierarchy of urban cores which is its parent. People in one community work in a factory which is very likely to be in another community. The existence of these units. in a single evening. although the lines of administrative and executive control have a formal structure which is . gives a detailed account of the patterns of influence and control that have actually led to decisions in Chicago. let us examine the subdivision of the city into isolated communities. as in any great city. even this is suspect. The community where the worker lives. this is itself a tree structure. The total separation of work from housing. do not illuminate the relations between art and city life. The individual community in a greater city has no reality as a functioning unit. It might be argued that. and now creates its own atmosphere. or even buy tickets from one after going to a performance in the other? In Vienna. for their sustenance. Only in the planner's mind has it become a tree.Does a concert hall ask to be next to an opera house? Can the two feed on one another? Will anybody ever visit them both. There are therefore many hundreds of thousands of worker-workplace systems. they are still the most convenient administrative units. because all are not mixed randomly. In London. and their overlapping nature. Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House were not built side by side. Finally. gluttonously. the worker-workplace systems must be anchored in physically recognizable units of the city which can then be taxed. almost no one manages to find work which suits him near his home. etc. started by Tony Garnier in his industrial city. in his book Political Influence. each of the performing arts has found its own place. and should therefore be left in their present tree organization. then incorporated in the 1929 Athens Charter. Paris. In Manhattan itself. The fact that we have so far failed to give this any physical expression has a vital consequence. London. whenever the worker and his workplace belong to separately administered municipalities. Clearly. Edward Banfield. But this tree. However. He shows that. the community which contains the workplace collects huge taxes and has relatively little on which to spend the tax revenue. if it is mainly residential. indicates that the living systems of London form a semilattice. which cut across the boundaries defined by Abercrombie's tree. each consisting of individuals plus the factory they work in. But the separation misses a variety of systems which require. The only reason that these functions have all been brought together in Lincoln Center is that the concept of performing art links them to one another. even though the individual communities of a great city have no functional significance in the lives of their inhabitants. As things are. They are merely born of the mania every simple-minded person has for putting things with the same name into the same basket. Each has created its own familiar section of the city. collects only little in the way of taxes and yet has great additional burdens on its purse in the form of schools. As we have seen in the Abercrombie plan for London. hospitals. to resolve this inequity. The influence of each overlaps the parts of the city which have been made unique to it. Each found its own place.

each person is under different influences as the problems change. as one problem replaces another. these formal chains of influence and authority are entirely overshadowed by the ad hoc lines of control which arise naturally as each new city problem presents itself. Let me begin with an example. limited as they must be by the capacity of the mind to form intuitively accessible structures. in your mind's eye? However you do it. a football and a tennis ball. Those of you who tend to think in terms of physical shape may group them differently. cannot achieve the complexity of the semilattice in a single mental act. The two together are a semilattice. Now.that is. perhaps even trapped by the way the mind works . why is it that so many designers have conceived cities as trees when the natural structure is in every case a semilattice? Have they done so deliberately. Either grouping taken by itself is a tree structure. a watermelon. the actual control and exercise of authority is semilattice-like. taking the two small spheres together . Nobody's sphere of influence is entirely under the control of any one superior. you cannot conceive all four sets at once in a single mental act. because designers. even from hour to hour. It varies from week to week.the orange and the tennis ball and the two large and more egg-shaped objects . because the mind has an overwhelming predisposition to see trees wherever it looks and cannot escape the tree conception? I shall try to convince you that it is for this second reason that trees are being proposed and built as cities . the football and the tennis ball. In a single mental act you can only visualize a tree. and the two sports balls together. you will do it by grouping them. who has what favours to trade with whom. so that you may deceive yourself into thinking you can visualize them all together. and you can alternate between the two pairs extremely fast. because they are trapped by a mental habit. Some of you will take the two fruits together. How will you keep them in your mind.the watermelon and the football. . who has what at stake. which is informal. I think you will find that you cannot visualize all four sets simultaneously because they overlap. You can visualize one pair of sets and then the other. Now let us try and visualize these groupings in the mind's eye. This second structure. is what really controls public action.a tree. Let us make a diagram of these groupings (Figure 16). But in truth. Suppose I ask you to remember the following four objects: an orange. the orange and the watermelon. working within the framework of the first. Some of you will be aware of both.because they cannot encompass the complexity of a semilattice in any convenient mental form. You cannot bring the semilattice structure into a visualizable form for a single mental act. These ad hoc lines depend on who is interested in the matter. in the belief that a tree structure will serve the people of the city better? Or have they done it because they cannot help it. Although the organization chart in the Mayor's office is a tree.

perhaps. You are no doubt wondering by now what a city looks like which is a semilattice. These experiments suggest strongly that people have an underlying tendency. when faced by a complex organization. necessarily occupied with the problem of total visualization in a single mental act. Modern psychology treats thought as a process of fitting new situations into existing slots and pigeonholes in the mind. the processes of thought prevent you from putting a mental construct into more than one mental category at once. But overlap alone does not give structure. we showed people patterns whose internal units overlapped. While we are not. To have structure. It is for this reason . you must have the right overlap. The complexity of the semilattice is replaced by the simpler and more easily grasped tree form. it is endowed with a basic intolerance for ambiguity . are nevertheless persistently conceived as trees. It is known today that grouping and categorization are among the most primitive psychological processes. He showed people a pattern for about a quarter of a second and then asked them to draw what they had seen. unable to grasp the full complexity of the pattern they had seen.This is the problem we face as designers. The tree is accessible mentally and easy to deal with. In the redrawn versions the circles are separated from the rest. and this is for us almost certainly different from the old overlap which we observe in historic cities. but not a tree. the principle is still the same.the overlap must be the right overlap. I must confess that I cannot yet show you plans or sketches.because the mind's first function is to reduce the ambiguity and overlap in a confusing situation and because. and found that they almost always invent a way of seeing the patterns as a tree . the original is shown on the left. which do require overlapping sets within them. Many people. Study of the origin of these processes suggests that they stem essentially from the organism's need to reduce the complexity of its environment by establishing barriers between the different events that it encounters. to reorganize it mentally in terms of non-overlapping units. The most startling proof that people tend to conceive even physical patterns as trees is found in some experiments of Sir Frederick Bartlett. As the . This is essentially what the high. the overlap between triangles and circles disappears. A garbage can is full of overlap. In experiments by Huggins and myself at Harvard.even when the semilattice view of the patterns would have helped them perform the task of experimentation which was before them. In Figure 17. It can also give chaos. The same rigidity dogs even perception of physical patterns. with two fairly typical redrawn versions to the right of it. It is not enough merely to make a demonstration of overlap . by analogy. to this end. Just as you cannot put a physical thing into more than one physical pigeonhole at once. The semilattice is hard to keep before the mind's eye and therefore hard to deal with.that structures like the city. so. simplified the patterns by cutting out the overlap. This is doubly important because it is so tempting to make plans in which overlap occurs for its own sake.density 'life-filled' city plans of recent years do.

The painting is significant. 3 and 4. All the artificial cities I have described have the structure of a tree rather than the semilattice structure of the Nicholson painting.in such a way indeed that. 6 and 7 because one is the ghost of the other shifted sideways. 3 and 6 because they enclose 4 and 5. The larger units are even more complex. which must be our vehicles for thought. if we make a complete inventory of the perceived units in the painting. and other images like it. The white is more complex still and is not even included in the diagram because it is harder to be sure of its elementary pieces. 1 and 7 because they are at opposite corners. The recreation of old kinds of overlap will be inappropriate. none contained in the others. to single out overlap as a vital generator of structure. 1 and 2 because they are a rectangle. Three and 5 form a unit because they work together as a rectangle. the . And when we wish to be precise. 5 and 6 because they are both dark and pointing the same way. and form a sort of off-centre reflection. that makes the painting fascinating. we find that each triangle enters into four or five completely different kinds of unit. 1 and S because they enclose 2. It is only the fact of the overlap. 4 and 7 because they are symmetrical with one another. yet all overlapping in that triangle. 2 and 4 because they form a parallelogram. and the resulting multiplicity of aspects which the forms present. we get the semilattice shown in Figure 19.relationships between functions change. The painting illustrated is a work by Simon Nicholson (Figure 18). these elements unite in many different ways to form the large units of the painting . 3 and 4 because they point the same way as 5 and 6. One can perhaps make the physical consequences of overlap more comprehensible by means of an image. The fascination of this painting lies in the fact that. Yet it is the painting. Thus. although constructed of rather few simple triangular elements. It seems almost as though the painter had made an explicit attempt. but rather because this painting has nothing else in it except overlap. as I have done. 2 and 3 because they form a rather thinner kind of Z. I have only listed the units of two triangles. so the systems which need to overlap in order to receive these relationships must also change. 4 and 6 because they form another rectangle. not so much because it has overlap in it (many paintings have overlap in them). if we number the triangles and pick out the sets of triangles which appear as strong visual units. 4 and 5 because they form a sort of Z. and chaotic instead of structured.

. In a society. the tree is the easiest vehicle for complex thoughts. they will cut our life within to pieces. it will be like a bowl full of razor blades on edge. administrators and developers. It not only takes from the young the company of those who have lived long. This separation isonly possible under the influence of treelike thought. and into old age. If we make cities which are trees. But the city is not. not the tree. it causes the same rift inside each individual life. because it is a tree. If the receptacle severs the overlap of the strands of life within it.the two will be dissociated. caused by the growth of desert cities for the old like Sun City. In a Person. For the human mind. Every time a piece of a city is torn out. In such a receptacle life will be cut to pieces. the city takes a further step toward dissociation. In any organized object. your ties with your own past will be unacknowledged. ready to cut up whatever is entrusted to it. Your youth will no longer be alive in your old age . your own life will be cut in two. planners. When we think in terms of trees we are trading the humanity and richness of the living city for a conceptual simplicity which benefits only designers. An ominous example of city-wide dissociation is the separation of retired people from the rest of urban life. As you pass into Sun City. is a powerfu1 way of exploring the structure of these images. being part of a large branch of modern mathematics. extreme compartmentalization and the dissociation of internal elements are the first signs of coming destruction. and a tree made to replace the semilattice that was there before. dissociation is anarchy. The city is a receptacle for life. cannot and must not be a tree.semilattice. but worse. dissociation is the mark of schizophrenia and impending suicide. lost and therefore broken. Arizona. It is the semilattice we must look for.

net/pages/8755 'A City is not a Tree' by Christopher Alexander A CITY IS NOT A TREE CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER The tree of my title is not a green tree with leaves. let me first define the concept of a set. they look at the papers displayed on the newsrack which .http://www. It is more and more widely recognized today that there is some essential ingredient missing from artificial cities. I must first make a simple distinction. When the elements of a set belong together because they co-operate or work together somehow. houses. there is a drugstore. water pipes. I shall contrast it with another. we are concerned with the physical living city and its physical backbone. gardens. In the entrance to the drugstore there is a newsrack where the day's papers are displayed. When the light is red. from a human point of view. many years natural cities. blades of grass. more complex abstract structure called a semilattice.rudi. I want to call those cities which have arisen more or less spontaneously over many. And I shall call those cities and parts of cities which have been deliberately created by designers and planners artificial cities. Siena. A set is a collection of elements which for some reason we think of as belonging together. the water molecules in them etc. entirely unsuccessful. cars. and since they have nothing to do. they are both names for structures of sets. people who are waiting to cross the street stand idly by the light. Manhattan are examples of natural cities. In order to define such structures. Levittown. molecules. Kyoto. as designers. When compared with ancient cities that have acquired the patina of life. Both the tree and the semilattice are ways of thinking about how a large collection of many small systems goes to make up a large and complex system. In order to relate these abstract structures to the nature of the city. Since. It is the name of an abstract structure. More generally. and outside the drugstore a traffic light. Liverpool. For example. we must naturally restrict ourselves to considering sets which are collections of material elements such as people. our modern attempts to create cities artificially are. in Berkeley at the corner of Hearst and Euclid. Chandigarh and the British New Towns are examples of artificial cities. we call the set of elements a system.

let us think abstractly for a moment.that is.C4]. form the fixed part of the system. and the sidewalk which the people stand on form a system . Let us say. there are 56 different subsets we can pick from six elements. Instead of talking about the real sets of millions of real particles which occur in the city. the physically unchanging part of this system is of special interest.6].5. What are the possible relationships among these sets? Some sets will be entirely part of larger sets. a collection of subsets which goes to make up such a picture is not merely an amorphous collection. In fact.2. using numbers as symbols.[2]. related as they are. [34]. contain no elements in common like [123] and [45].can work together. the newsrack. merely because relationships are established among the subsets once the subsets are chosen.they can see from where they stand. Suppose we now pick out certain of these 56 sets (just as we pick out certain sets and call them units when we form our picture of the city).3. [345]. others actually buy a paper while they wait. The newsrack. the electric impulses which make the lights change. newspapers. From the designer's point of view. we usually single out a few for special consideration.4.[5]. Now.2. the traffic light. [12345]. [45]. To understand this structure. the empty set [-]. like [123] and [234]. that we pick the following subsets: [123].4. Automatically.[3]. for example. the collection has a definite structure. I claim that whatever picture of the city someone has is defined precisely by the subsets he sees as units. many fixed concrete subsets of the city which are the receptacles for its systems and can therefore be thought of as significant physical units. Some of the sets will be disjoint . money and electrical impulses . Not including the full set [1. let us consider a simpler structure made of just half a dozen elements. and the one-element sets [1].5. This effect makes the newsrack and the traffic light interactive. [234].6. Label these elements 1. the people who stop at the light and read papers. It derives its coherence as a unit both from the forces which hold its own elements together and from the dynamic coherence of the larger living system which includes it as a fixed invariant part. Some of the sets will overlap.they all work together. Of the many. [3456]. the traffic light and the sidewalk between them. Some of them just read the headlines. .3. I define this fixed part as a unit of the city. [6]. the money going from people's pockets to the dime slot. It is the unchanging receptacle in which the changing parts of the system people. as [34] is part of [345] and [3456]. the newspapers on it.

For the sake of clarity and visual economy. thus the line between [34] and [345] and the line between [345] and [3456] make it unnecessary to draw a line between [34] and [3456]. for instance. so that whenever one set contains another (as [345] contains [34]. one unit consists of newsrack. When the structure meets certain conditions it is called a semilattice. this axiom states merely that wherever two units overlap. the set of elements common to both also belongs to the collection. it is called a tree. Another unit consists of the drugstore itself. when two overlapping sets belong to the collection. In diagram B the chosen sets are arranged in order of ascending magnitude.We can see these relationships displayed in two ways. for any two sets that belong to the collection either one is wholly contained in the other. Clearly this area of overlap is itself a recognizable unit and so satisfies the axiom above which defines the characteristics of a semilattice. there is a vertical path leading from one to the other. In diagram A each set chosen to be a unit has a line drawn round it. it is usual to draw lines only between sets which have no further sets and lines between them. or else they are wholly disjoint. [234] and [345] both belong to the collection and their common part. with its entry and the newsrack. the choice of subsets alone endows the collection of subsets as a whole with an overall structure. When it meets other more restrictive conditions. sidewalk and traffic light.) The tree axiom states: A collection of sets forms a tree if and only if. The two units overlap in the newsrack. In the case of the drugstore example. [34]. The semilattice axiom goes like this: A collection of sets forms a semilattice if and only if. It satisfies the axiom since. also belongs to it. This is the structure which we are concerned with here. Diagrams A & B redrawn by Nikos Salingaros As we see from these two representations. (As far as the city is concerned. . The structure illustrated in diagrams A and B is a semilattice. the area of overlap is itself a recognizable entity and hence a unit also.

We are concerned with the difference between structures in which no overlap occurs.000. and those structures in which overlap does occur. characteristic of trees. This enormously greater variety is an index of the great structural complexity a semilattice can have when compared with the structural simplicity of a tree.000 different subsets. We may see just how much more complex a semilattice can be than a tree in the following fact: a tree based on 20 elements can contain at most 19 further subsets of the 20. while a semilattice based on the same 20 elements can contain more than 1. It is not merely the overlap which makes the distinction between the two important. so that every tree is a trivially simple semilattice. Since this axiom excludes the possibility of overlapping sets. It is this lack of structural complexity. Diagrams A & B redrawn by Nikos Salingaros However. To demonstrate. in this chapter we are not so much concerned with the fact that a tree happens to be a semilattice. which is crippling our conceptions of the city. Still more important is the fact that the semilattice is potentially a much more complex and subtle structure than a tree. let us look at some modern conceptions of the city. . each of which I shall show to be essentially a tree.The structure illustrated in diagrams C and D is a tree. but with the difference between trees and those more general semilattices which are not trees because they do contain overlapping units. there is no way in which the semilattice axiom can be violated.

each sharply separated from all adjacent communities. Columbia. Abercrombie and Forshaw: The drawing depicts the structure conceived by Abercrombie for London. Each superblock contains schools. The communities are the larger units of the structure.' The city is conceived as a tree with two principal levels. Figure 2. and where necessary to recognize them as separate and definite entities. form 'villages'. The organization is a tree. Community Research and Development.Figure 1.: Neighbourhoods. The structure is a tree. The organization is a tree.in clusters of five. Greenbelt. Greater London plan (1943). Maryland. There are no overlapping units. Clarence Stein: This 'garden city' has been broken down into superblocks. to increase their degree of segregation. It is made of a large number of communities. . Figure 3. Transportation joins the villages into a new town. parks and a number of subsidiary groups of houses built around parking lots. Maryland.' And again. generally with their own shops and schools. the smaller sub-units are neighbourhoods. 'The communities themselves consist of a series of sub-units. Inc. corresponding to the neighbourhood units. 'The proposal is to emphasize the identity of the existing communities. Abercrombie writes.

at a careless glance. Take. Mesa City. Kenzo Tange: This is a beautiful example. Figure 5. Figure 6. Le Corbusier: The whole city is served by a commercial centre in the middle. The structure is a tree. The plan consists of a series of loops stretched across Tokyo Bay. In the second major loop. except in the third major loop where one contains government offices and another industrial offices. Tokyo plan. There are four major loops.Figure 4. Figure 7. each medium loop contains three minor loops which are residential neighbourhoods. This main artery is in turn fed by subsidiary arteries parallel to it. community and commercial centres. Subsidiary to these are further administrative. particularly. one medium loop is the railway station and another is the port. Finally. Otherwise. one for each of the city's 20 sectors. to believe that it is a richer structure than our more obviously rigid examples. each again subdivided further and surrounded by groups of still smaller dwelling units. Chandigarh (1951). Lucio Costa: The entire form pivots about the central axis. Here we find the centre of the city divided into a university and a residential quarter. Brasilia. Two subsidiary elongated commercial cores are strung out along the maior arterial roads. But when we look at it in detail we find precisely the same principle of organization. these are fed by the roads which surround the superbiocks themselves. each of which contains three medium loops. . the university centre. which is itself divided into a number of villages (actually apartment towers) for 4000 inhabitants. running north-south. and each of the two halves is served by a single main artery. linked to the administrative centre at the head. Paolo Soleri: The organic shapes of Mesa City lead us.

The most beautiful example of all I have kept until last. plastic arts. Communitas. Percival and Paul Goodman: Communitas is explicitly organized as a tree: it is first divided into four concentric major zones. The symbol is apt. each of these containing individual dwelling units. Finally. is a tree. but of apartment blocks. is the fixed. for. It is not possible to have a structure which is a clearer tree.Figure 8. The university is divided into eight sectors comprising natural history. not consisting of individual houses. unchanging residue of some system in the living city (just as a house is the residue of the . the innermost being a commercial centre. the organization of the army was designed precisely in order to create discipline and rigidity. and the fourth open country. then. The photograph on the [left] is Hilberseimer's own scheme for the commercial area of a city based on the army camp archetype. the next a university. at the bottom. shopping and amusement. Each of these structures. railroads. moreover. containing five layers: airport. because it symbolizes the problem perfectly. administration. and then shows a picture of a modern military encampment as a kind of archetypal form for the city. agriculture and vacation lands. Each of these is further subdivided: the commercial centre is represented as a great cylindrical skyscraper. the third residential and medical. buses and mechanical services. The third concentric ring is divided into neighbourhoods of 4000 people each. The overall organization is a tree Figure 9. It appears in Hilberseimer's book The Nature of Cities. planetarium. He describes the fact that certain Roman towns had their origin as military camps. Each unit in each tree that I have described. of course. the open country is divided into three segments: forest preserves. and. science laboratories. light manufacture. music and drama. zoos and aquariums.

However. if we ask a man to name his best friends and then ask each of these in turn to name their best friends. their emotions and their belongings. In a traditional society.interactions between the members of a family. have been provided with no physical receptacle. in every city there are thousands. even millions. There are virtually no closed groups of people in modern society. A village is made up of a number of separate closed groups of this kind. Neither the Columbia plan nor the Stein plan for example. they will all name each other so that they form a closed group. and so on outwards. The physical layout of the plans. each formed by associational ties of different strength.the systems of friends and acquaintances form a semilattice. But today's social structure is utterly different. Christopher ALEXANDER: A city is not a tree © Christopher Alexander . very likely unknown to the first person. and a freeway is the residue of movement and commercial exchange). and the real systems. If we ask a man to name his friends and then ask them in turn to name their friends. In the worst cases. they will all name different people. ranging from the whole city down to the family. The reality of today's social structure is thick with overlap . corresponds to social realities. not a tree (Figure 10). and the way they function suggests a hierarchy of stronger and stronger closed social groups. the units which do appear fail to correspond to any living reality. of times as many more systems at work whose physical residue does not appear as a unit in these tree structures. these people would again name others. whose existence actually makes the city live.